They’ve been doing this since the 1970s, and they’re totally old dudes now, but there’s not a lot of music I’m more excited for in 2023 than a new album by Sparks.
Sparks have led a beautifully eclectic career for more than 50 years now, straddling the line between pop, rock and art and becoming popular, but never quite that popular.
Brothers Ron and Russell Mael (Russell sings with an operatic energy, Ron writes the music, mostly) are Californian natives who only really made it big when they went to Europe, and who somehow have kept a career rolling along as the entire music industry has changed several times over in their lifetimes.
I mean, who else makes a great music video I actually care about watching in 2023? There’s something joyfully enigmatic about their video for “The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte” starring Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett, the first single from the album of the same name coming out later in May. It’s an insinuating earworm, but it’s also weirdly sad and funny, making catchy music out of the modern world’s murky, jittery uncertainty. And Cate’s got moves:
In my journalism career, I’ve read a zillion bad press releases from bad bands that started off with some variation of saying “Our sound can’t really be described” or “Our music defies classification, man.” For Sparks, that description is actually true.
Their song titles alone are often perfectly formed little comic vignettes – “Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is,” “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me),” “What The Hell Is It This Time?”, “Lighten Up, Morrissey,” “Dancing Is Dangerous” or this gem — “I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song.” And don’t get me started on their album covers, which frequently are works of genius.
Their peculiar stage presence in the 1970s and ’80s was just oddball enough to seem rather subversive – Russell the long-haired, swinging frontman, Ron the leering, somewhat sinister keyboard presence, with that “Hitler mustache” that gave the whole band a macabre air. Who were they trying to be, anyway?
Their earliest work, 1971’s Sparks album, had a bit of a hippie-pop hangover going on with funkily falsetto singles like “Wonder Girl.” But they refined their sound fully with the dazzling Kimono My House in 1973 and bombastic single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us.” It’s almost like a Queen song reimagined by aliens who had never actually been to Earth:
Queen, of course, were bombastic too, but in a milder, more crowd-pleasing way. Sparks were defiantly weird, and put the onus on you to go along with them rather than just sit back and be entertained. An unexpected hit, “This Town” led to a series of goofily smart pop tunes all through the ‘70s and ‘80s. At one point, they wrote a song simply about the joys of eating pineapple.
With 1979’s synth-pop electronic collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, No. 1 In Heaven, it feels like they invented the new wave of the 1980s – turning repetitive beats and surging futuristic chords into something almost ecstatic, strange and wonderful.
Periodically, they’d go away and return as an entirely different band, but they never really left, even if their work was more of a cult pleasure than mega-seller. Circa 2000 their work took a more orchestral, elaborate turn on albums like Lil’ Beethoven and Hippopotamus, with a renewed focus on the power of repetition with such mantra-like tracks as “My Baby’s Taking Me Home.”
Yet while the later songs have an older, wiser perspective than some of their earlier work, they’re still shot through with that very Sparks sense of humour. They’ve even written one of the weirdest movie musicals in recent years, the incredibly bizarre story of a murdering comedian and his magical puppet baby (!!!), Annette. I loved it, but it’s about as far from the mainstream as you can get.
Sparks contain the qualities of most of the musicians I admire the most, from the Beatles to Bowie – a determination to always move forward and not keep repeating themselves. Their 26th studio album sounds almost nothing like their first more than 50 years ago, and yet at the same time it’s unmistakably the work of the same vision.
The excellent documentary by Edgar Wright, The Sparks Brothers, which I’ve written about before, has played a big part in the autumnal appreciation for Sparks and is a terrific tour through their idiosyncratic career for beginners.
Witty and weird, Sparks are a band that for 50 years has been boldly nothing but themselves, never chasing fads nor fashion, but sometimes creating it. In a world where everybody seems obsessed with fame and going viral, there’s something comforting in a cult hit favourite band that’s never been anything but themselves.
Whatever they do next, it’s worth listening to.